Judging Michael

Susan Clark Armstrong

Some folks think that the process to select judges is rooted in virtue so pure that attorneys with the wisdom of Solomon are somehow plucked from courtrooms, law offices or behind careening ambulances to impartially serve justness to the wrong and the wronged. They believe selection committees, canons, government agencies, state bar associations and the voters ensure that a wise and appropriate person is selected. Sometimes, the safeguards don’t work, but more often they do.

 And, as in all professions, there are heroes. It’s those in the courtrooms who keep the peace, administer oaths, record the course of events, ensure the administration of the verdict and sustain the process who know when there are heroes in their midst. These are the people who have judged Michael Kalil and found him worthy.

 Judge Kalil is loath to talk about himself, his accomplishments and the forces that drive him to diligently serve the public. He will tell you he set his sights on a judgeship at an early age and worked to achieve his goal. But family, long-time friends, short-time acquaintances, co-workers and those involved in the juvenile justice system and children’s services are not reluctant to stand in his stead.

 Michael Kalil comes from a long line of overachievers. His ancestors were Arab Christians from Ramallah, a Palestinian city on the West Bank of the Jordan River about six miles from Jerusalem. For centuries, most citizens of Ramallah were predominantly Christian, but as other aggressive religions moved into the area in the late 1920s, the city became the source of political and religious unrest. In the early 1940s, the Kalil family escaped with few possessions to America to worship as Christians and to seek the “American dream.” For the Kalils, the dream became a reality. The Kalils emigrated to Valdosta, Georgia, then to Jacksonville and established a large extended family, many of whom are a part of the legal community. 

 When researched, Judge Michael Kalil’s résumé is long, impressive and remarkably genuine, even to the most ardent faultfinder and fact checker.

 An abridged version of Kalil’s many accomplishments is that he attended the University of North Florida and began to distinguish himself early. He was the chief justice of Student Government and was involved in student conduct and student appeals. He chaired judicial councils and was involved in leadership programs including Leadership Florida. After graduation, Kalil attended Stetson University College of Law focusing on trial advocacy. While going to law school, he worked as a certified legal intern at the Office of the Public Defender in DeLand and served as the Student Bar Association class representative. Among many other awards, he received the Stetson College of Law Certificate in Leadership Development, and when he graduated in 2008, he was awarded the prestigious William F. Blews Pro Bono Service Award for completing over 200 hours of voluntary service. 

 After his law school graduation and passing the bar, Kalil immediately went back to work in the public defender’s office, but this time in Jacksonville and as an attorney. He represented individuals in cases ranging from juvenile delinquency to felonies. Colleagues say he was a respected figure in local courtrooms as he advocated for area citizens and made a name for himself. A good name.

 Patrick Kilbane is the general counsel for Ullmann Wealth Partners in Jacksonville. With a little bit of internet stalking, it appears Kilbane is a bit of a who amongst the who’s who in the Jacksonville legal community. His legal accomplishments are many and distinctive, but he will only tell you that he’s one of Michael Kalil’s closest friends. In Kilbane’s various official roles in legal organizations and the Jacksonville community, he’s hosted numerous charity affairs.

 “At all the events, Michael would show up to volunteer. He wasn’t somebody who was an official board member; he just wanted to give back and help,” Kilbane remembered. “He never looked for any recognition. He was somebody those of us who were running those events could depend on.”

 Attorney John Kalil begs for indulgence as he speaks of his son. John said Michael was never encouraged to join the “family business,” but, instead, it was his natural progression to gravitate toward the law. The father said that after his son got his first job as a lawyer, he immediately and cautiously began to save his money to some day run for judge. 

 “He never asked for a penny from anyone else,” beamed John. “He did it all on his own.”

 John said Michael also began to intensely study the judicial system and the judges in the area. 

 After years of service at the public defender’s office, Michael joined his father at the Law Offices of John Kalil as a civil trial lawyer.

 In 2017, Mayor Lenny Curry appointed Michael Kalil to the Civil Service Board, a judicial review board, where he was elected vice chairman. His contemporaries said this appointment was due to his untiring work ethic and his exceptional legal knowledge.

 The judicial system in Florida is a pyramid in the pecking order. At the top is the State Supreme Court, followed by the district courts of appeal, then the circuit courts and finally county courts.

 On Jan. 5, 2021, Michael Kalil’s hard work paid off. He was sworn in as a circuit judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, the sixth largest circuit in Florida, which serves Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. At 37, he became one of the youngest judges to serve on the Fourth Judicial Circuit bench. 

 Chief Judge Mark Mahon assigned Judge Kalil to administer juvenile delinquency and child dependency cases, along with unified Family Court.

 The new judge began studying all facets of his job. He soon realized the learning curve was rigorous when the lives of children and juveniles were at stake.

 The court appoints guardians ad litems to represent minors and those who are mentally incompetent to protect their rights in court. Vanessa Trivento is a circuit director of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Office.

 “Judge Kalil truly hit the ground running. He was very interested in understanding and learning the process, learning what each role is and how they play a part in dependency,” said Trivento. “He runs his courtroom with the utmost respect for every party involved…no matter what the reason they are in his courtroom. It’s clear he really has a heart for the work.”  

 A large part of the adoption and child protection process rests with Family Support Services (FFS). They work closely with the Florida Department of Children and Families and are charged with monumental tasks including managing “adoptions, foster care, extended care, care for teens, caregiving support and family preservation.” FFS also offers a host of programs and in-home training to teach parents and foster parents life skills so they can provide a safe and loving home. FSS teaches teens, who will be aging out of the foster care system, “independent living skills and life skills that enable them to become self-sufficient.”

 Jodi Pliska is the adoption and supportive services manager with Family Support Services of North Florida.

 “Judge Kalil has been very supportive for everyone in the Family Support Services system,”  assured Pliska. “He is very interested to know the case and to make a very special day for them. He is excited to be there for them and to finalize the adoptions.” 

 Kalil also began looking for ways to bring innovative ideas and programs that reap lasting benefits and bring permanency to the lives of those who come into his court. He wanted to streamline some of the court processes. More children and juveniles had come into the system and the courts had begun to require more manpower and funding. His ideas created results.

 Running an entire juvenile division typically took three to four judges. Kalil began handling the shelter and detention calendar every day via Zoom, saving time and costs incurred for transportation and staff to bring juveniles to court each day in the process. In a matter of months, Kalil’s coworkers said, he was able to handle all dependency, delinquency and adoptions solely on his own. This saved funding and freed up judges to work in other divisions of the court that were overburdened.

 Patrick Kilbane said the Fourth Circuit has some excellent judges and good procedures and practices in place. “But things are done a certain way for so long,” he related. “Then you get a fresh set of eyes from a young person who has different ideas and wants to be more efficient, maybe wants to make it a more warm and welcoming environment. Let’s be honest. The courthouse is not the warmest place to pop into.”

 Due to COVID-19, adoption “festivities” in the courtroom had been put on hold for 20 months with adoption proceedings being held via Zoom. While many judicial proceedings worked well by Zoom, Kalil felt that adoption ceremonies were epic to children who had long yearned for a “forever family” and for parents who were eager to provide it. Zooming seemed to degrade such an important process.

 So the judge made his courtroom a more welcoming place to pop into. On Oct. 29, 2021 he brought back “The Party.” With the help of volunteers, the courtroom staff, Family Support Services, guardians ad litem and local merchants, Kalil conjured a Halloween adoption bash that rivaled those of Disney’s, while still following COVID safeguards. The courtroom was transformed into a Trick or Treat fantasyland while children, along with some parents and extended family, sported costumes and were treated to a variety of goodies. Kalil dressed as a judge. The event was covered by the local and national media as 15 children were welcomed into their forever families.

 With the success of the Halloween adoption still fresh, Kalil and all his party people threw a Christmas adoption shindig. Besides Christmas décor and goodies, Santa showed up with gifts for adoptees and their new siblings.

 Despite the merrymaking, Kalil continued to work to bring new and practical approaches into the system, while still using the already effective practices that existed within the courts. The judge worked to expand Early Childhood Court, which is designed for young mothers of children ranging from birth to three years of age. He brought more intensive services and resources which concentrated on child and brain development into the program. He also helped facilitate and implement a new program called Effective Response Matrix (ERM) for young people on juvenile probation. When a juvenile violates probation with a minor offense like missing curfew or school, ERM allows probation officers to assign punishment and deterrence automatically instead of bringing the juvenile back into the system. Examples of punishment in ERM are completing additional community service hours or writing book reports. The new program is set to begin shortly.

 Kalil hopes to get businesses and organizations to become more invested in children. He is urging businesses not only to become more involved in the adoption programs, but to be engaged to help provide different types of assistance to children and juveniles who are in the court system.

 Now getting recognition for some of his original and successful approaches, the judge doesn’t seem to like the attention, but Kilbane is doing an “I told you so.”

 “People are seeing what I have known for a long time,”  Kilbane said. “He could easily punch the clock and do his job, but he’s trying to make events very special for the families and the kids involved. He doesn’t have to do any of that.”   

 The world needs heroes.

Folks don’t know if he’s faster than a speeding bullet, and they haven’t seen him leap tall buildings in a single bound. But some think that maybe Circuit Judge Michael Kalil does wear a red cape under his judicial robe.